These are really simple explanations of terms you’ll run across as you learn about or use your computer. I try to explain what the terms mean – and what they don’t mean, when there’s some common misconception about a term.

Scroll down the page to find a word, or click on a letter to jump to that section:

 

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M

N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z

A

 

app

An abbreviation of “application“. “Application” and “app” are the same thing.

For some time, it seemed common to use the word “application” for applications on a laptop or desktop computer (like a Macintosh computer), and the shorter “app” for applications on a smaller mobile device (like an iPhone or iPad). But these days, the short “app” is heard all around.

 

Apple

Apple (once known as Apple Computer) is a company based in Cupertino, California, not far from San Francisco.

The company offers the Macintosh (a line of desktop and laptop computers, often abbreviated to “Mac”), iPhone (a combination mobile phone and pocket computer), iPad (a tablet computer), iPod (famous as a music player, but also a pocket computer), plenty of other devices, and all kinds of software and services.

Although some people will call a device from Apple “an Apple”, the more correct names are as above. (Originally, Apple did make computers with names like Apple II and Apple III, but that was over 30 years ago; it’s very unlikely that you’d come across one of those now!)

application

An application (often abbreviated to “app”) is a piece of software – that is, a program. It’s a set of instructions, written by people called programmers, telling a computer to do something. The main – really, the only – purpose of a computer is letting you use applications!

There are applications running invisibly and anonymously in the background at all times on your computer, taking care of basic tasks that you don’t need to worry about (displaying stuff on the screen, maintaining an Internet connection, keeping track of the time, and lots more).

The apps that you’ll directly deal with are the interesting ones: apps for writing email, creating artwork, playing games, visiting web sites, and a thousand other things. Each of these apps is represented with a name and an icon. You can start up any one of these apps, use it as you like, switch freely from one application to another, and then (if you like) shut down any application that you no longer want to use.

That’s enough description for this short dictionary entry, but there’s more to say about applications. Trust me: it’s easy material, is not (too) boring, and should make you much more confident with your computer!

Learning a bit about applications – what kinds you have on your computer, what your applications do, how to discuss applications (such as when asking for help with questions), and so on – is really helpful. Check out these pages on Bit Cafe:

B

 

bit

Bit” (along with a couple of related terms) definitely qualifies as a “computer science” term that you don’t need to know. (There won’t be a quiz.) Still, the simple definition only takes a moment:

Computers store data (i.e., information) and work with data. An amount of data can be measured, just like anything else measurable.

The smallest unit of information – the smallest amount of data – that is possible in computing is called a bit. A bit is something that exists in one of two states. Like a switch: something that can be flipped either this way or that way.

A single bit isn’t very useful and isn’t very interesting, but it’s possible to record lots of data by using lots of bits – for example, 8 bits in a row, which is called a byte.

What’s so special about this amount of data (8 bits) that it gets its own special name? This: By convention, a byte is the amount of data often used to record one character (a letter, numeral, punctuation mark, etc.) of text, at least for English and many other languages. So, a byte of data is big enough to record a single letter. Five bytes of data is enough to record a five-letter word. A hundred bytes of data is enough to record a message a hundred characters (including spaces, punctuation marks, etc.) in length.

One or several bytes of data still isn’t something you’ll likely ever have reason to think about. Things get meaningful, though, when we’re talking about lots and lots of bytes, in the context of questions like “Is this email message ‘too big’ to send?” or “How many music files can I store on my computer’s hard disk before it’s ‘full’?” The following terms are very useful for you to know:

Kilobyte (a.k.a. KB, kb, K, k, kbyte, etc.): A kilobyte is about 1,000 bytes. (I know, saying “about” is odd. In some contexts, it means precisely 1,024 bytes, for reasons I’ll skip here; in other contexts, it means 1,000 bytes. “About 1,000 bytes” is good enough!)

One or several kilobytes is really a very small amount of data, for most practical purposes: a simple text-only email message, or a tiny little graphic file, might consist of just a few kilobytes of data.

Say you need to download a file from the Internet, and the file is several kilobytes in size. Should that take long? Nope. Even if your Internet connection is very slow, downloading that file should happen in an instant. And you almost certainly don’t need to worry about that tiny bit of data “taking up space” on your computer.

Megabyte (a.k.a. MB, mb, M, mmbyte, etc.): A megabyte is about 1,000 kilobytes (or 1 million bytes). These are more substantial chunks of data: one or several megabytes might be the amount of data in a very long work of text, or the amount of data that makes up a photo taken with your smartphone camera. (Several megabytes of data is also a limit on the amount of data that some stingy email services will let you attach to an email message.)

Depending on the speed of your Internet connection, downloading a file of a few megabytes in size may be nearly instant, or may leave you with a few moments to twiddle your thumbs. And unless your computer is really strapped for remaining space to store data, that file probably won’t take up any appreciable space. (However, a lot of multi-megabyte files, like a lot of smartphone camera photos, can add up and really start taking up space!)

Gigabyte (a.k.a. GB, gb, G, ggbyte, etc.): A gigabyte is about 1,000 megabytes (or 1 million kilobytes, or 1 billion bytes). One or several gigabytes represents a big amount of data, such as that in a big video file, or an application that takes up a fair amount of storage. As of this date, sending files that big by email is generally possible only with special services designed to handle such heavy loads.

Depending on the speed of your Internet connection, downloading a file of a few gigabytes in size probably leaves you time to get a cup of coffee. Or maybe dinner.

Terabyte (a.k.a. TB, tb, T, t, tbyte, etc.): A terabyte is about 1,000 gigabytes (or 1 million megabytes, or 1 billion kilobytes, or 1 trillion bytes). As of this date, you’re very unlikely to run across any sort of file even approaching a terabyte in size. Your computer may not even be able to store a terabyte of date inside it. (As of this date, computers with hard disks that store 1 terabyte of data are becoming common, but many computers out there have hard disks storing only a fraction of that.)

As for downloading… I’ve never downloaded a terabyte-sized file, and I don’t expect you or I will do so soon. It’d take a long time, and you’d need at least a terabyte of unused storage space to save the file.

 

Bluetooth

This odd-sounding name refers to a wireless technology – that is, a type of two-way radio – found in a lot of modern computers, including desktop computers, laptop computers, tablets, smartphones, wireless headphones, and now “smart watches”.

Bluetooth is a radio that works only over short distances – just a few yards, generally speaking – but doesn’t use much power. That makes it ideal for its intended purpose: it lets devices, including very small ones, communicate with each other over short distances. Bluetooth is a common way for smartphones, tablets, and other computers to communicate when they’re close to each other (typically, when in the same room); it’s also used in wireless mice and keyboards, letting these communicate with a nearby desktop computer without ugly cables cluttering the desk.

Incidentally, why the weird name? The technology was named after a 10-century king, Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, who united Danish tribes into a kingdom. Just as Bluetooth radio, uh, “unites” your various devices. (I assume the person who proposed the name was quite a history buff. Unfortunately, even historians don’t know whether the king’s nickname came from an actual discolored tooth, or some less interesting source.)

browser

This is simply a shortened name for web browser, an application used for viewing web sites (which make up the part of the Internet known as the World Wide Web).

(If that makes “browser” good and clear for you, great! Otherwise, hit one or more of the links in that sentence to learn a bit more.)

 

byte

A byte is a small amount of data (i.e., information), stored or read or otherwise used by a computer. In technical terms, a byte is 8 bits. More meaningfully, a byte is the amount of data often used to record one character (a letter, a numeral, a punctuation mark, etc.).

Larger amounts of data are discussed using big units of bytes: kilobyte for (about) a thousand bytes, megabyte for (about) a million bytes, gigabyte for (about) a billion bytes, and terabyte for (about) a trillion bytes. (There are bigger units beyond that, but you’re unlikely to come across them.)

Bytes are discussed in a little more detail above, under bit. Take a peek!

 

case

A computer’s case is its body – for lack of a better word, the plastic or metal “box” that all the components fit into. (Some computer cases have more colorful names: the tall type that sits on or under a desk is often called a “tower”. The large, square, flat case used in some older computers went by the delightful nickname “pizza box”.)

I don’t often hear this use of the word “case” these days, when computers are no longer big boxes on desktops. Any mention of “case” now is likely to mean something entirely different: an optional protective cover for phone, tablet, or laptop computer.

 

C

 

central processing unit

The central processing unit (also known as CPU, processor, or chip) is what you might call the “brain” or “heart” of a computer. In short, it’s the part that does the calculating, the part that “crunches” numbers and executes the instructions that make up your apps. The CPU is an absolutely essential component in a computer!

Some people confuse the CPU with the body of the computer (the laptop device itself, or the big unit that sits under a desk, etc.), but the body is the body (or the case); it only contains the CPU. Physically, the CPU is a tiny (probably postage-stamp sized or smaller), typically square “chip” made of silicon, packed with billions of microscopically small “switches” that perform calculations at incredible speeds. (Really, a CPU is an amazing piece of technology.)

You’ll likely never see your computer’s CPU, and there isn’t anything about CPUs that you need to know in order to use computers. But it’s good to know what it is (and if you have further questions about it, just ask).

 

client

Setting aside the everyday meaning of the word “client” (meaning “customer”), there’s also the mysterious-sounding computer term “client”. It’s one of many words that you don’t need to know to make use of computers – but learning it will help demystify computer lingo. It’s not hard to understand, either:

A network is a collection of two or more computers that can share information with each other. When two computers “talk”, generally one is asking for some information, and the other is supplying it.

The side supplying the information is called a server. (That’s easy to remember: it serves up the info.)

The side asking for the information is called a client. (That’s not such an obvious term, but I guess you can think of the client as the “customer” for the info.)

So there’s the simplest definition. Here’s the wee bit more you should know for understanding:

  • When we say “a computer” is requesting or supplying information, there is of course some application performing the tasks. An application that asks for and receives information from another computer is a client (or client application, client app, etc.). An application that responds to requests and dishes up information is a server (or server application, or some similar name).
  • A computer running such applications is often dedicated to performing only those tasks (especially in the case of server software, which can be pretty demanding on a computer). For that reason, the whole computer will typically be called a client or a server.

Okay, enough background. What do these terms have to do with you? You’ll inevitably run across them, but should now find them easier to decipher. Examples:

  • You may see the term “web server” often. That refers to a computer that hosts a web site – that is, a computer that waits for, and responds to, requests to view web pages. When you “visit” a web site on the Internet, you’re asking some (probably far-away) web server to send the page data to your computer – which, yes, makes your computer a web client. (More specifically, your web browser is the web client. That would be the application – probably named Safari, Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer, although there are others – that you use to view web sites.)
  • If you try to visit a web site and get hit with a message like “No response from server”, you can guess what that means: there’s some problem with the computer that’s supposed to serve up the web page, or a problem that computer’s web server software, or a problem with the connection between your computer and that web server. Likewise, if a web site tells you that the site is “not compatible with your web client”, you should understand that the website isn’t cool with the app you’re using to view web pages. You would need to visit the site again using a different web browser. (Thankfully, this sort of too-picky web site is becoming rare!)
  • When you use email, the application you use is your email client, or just mail client. (You likely use whatever mail client came with your computer, but there are many mail clients available.) The computers out on the Internet that kindly collect outgoing email from senders’ mail clients, and forward the email to recipients’ mail clients, are running – you guessed it – mail server applications. When you’re setting up an email account and you’re asked to specify the “mail server”, you’re simply being asked to name the computer out there on the Internet that performs this “postmaster” job for your email.

So. Where your doings in the Internet are concerned, “server” refers to some computer (or its applications) “out there” on the Internet, working to supply and relay the information you’re interested in (web pages, email, chat messages, streaming videos and music, etc.). “Client” likely refers to your computer or its client applications (your web browser, email app, messaging app, etc.) requesting and receiving the information. Easy enough!

And that covers the topic of clients and servers in as much detail as you likely care to know.

(I’m struggling a bit to put this “client / server” business into words. Please let me know whether the above makes sense to you!)

 

computer

A dumb device that, unlike a human brain, knows nothing, understands nothing, assumes nothing, feels nothing, and can do nothing… with one area of exception. It can:

  • Store information (generally called data);
  • Follow special instructions (generally called software or programs or applications) that tell the computer how to manipulate the data for some purpose (e.g., to record financial information, run a Scrabble game, edit and store the best-selling novel you’re writing, or do a zillion other things);
  • Use data and instructions to manipulate other devices, so it can create images on a screen, emit sounds from a speaker, send data and instructions to other computers, and so on.

Storing and manipulating data is something we humans have always been able to do! The computer’s trick, made possible by modern technology, is that it can store incredible amounts of data, and can follow instructions to manipulate the data with incredible speed, to perform countless calculations on masses of data before a human brain can barely rouse a neuron.

To “get” computers, it’s important to understand that they’re not in any way “smart”! All that computers can do is mindlessly follow instructions that were written by smart human brains. (But when a mindless computer runs those clever human instructions at the speed of lightning, the result makes the computer look like a genius.)

 

cookie

“Cookies”? Why do web sites keep tossing up messages about cookies?

Many web sites that you visit will save a bit of information on your computer. That small file is called a cookie. (Yes, it’s a weird name. I don’t know why this little bit of information is called a “cookie”.)

It’s maybe easiest to explain the why before the what. Often, when you visit a web site and then later visit it again, you want that site to remember some stuff from your earlier visits. Like the fact that you logged in with an ID and password last time; you’d like the web site to say “Ah, you again, come in,” not ask you to log in all over again, right? Or perhaps the web site is one with personalized settings – say, a site where  you set your personal search criteria, or your preferred text size, or the types of news story you want the site to show. When you later visit the site again, you’d probably prefer that it remember those things that you earlier set, not forget them and force you to set them all over again. Or, one more example: You visit an online shop, and put some items in the “shopping cart” (without yet having logged in as a user). But later you close that web page, and have to visit it all over again. You’d hope that the site will remember that stuff that you already put in the shopping cart, right?

You’ve probably noticed that many sites do seem to remember things like this when you visit again. How did the web site remember that information? By writing it down! That is, it records the info in its own little file (the cookie). The next time you visit the site, it looks for its cookie on your computer and, upon finding it, is able to say “Ah, you’re visiting again! I see you earlier made some settings, and have a pair of mauve Crocs in your shopping cart… Great, I’ll restore all that, just the way it was last time.”

So. That’s what cookies are. You typically don’t mess with them yourself, or even need to be aware of them; they just quietly perform these tricks on their own.

Cookies sound pretty helpful, don’t they. They are helpful – but there are concerns about them, too. A main concern: Advertisers on web sites have come up with clever ways to use cookies to “track” what web sites you visit, to better spam you with ads. (The problems of cookies – and what, if anything, you should do about it – is a topic to address later. Leave a comment if you think it should be sooner than later!)

 

copy, cut, and paste

Copy, cut, and paste are a trio of actions that are common functions in the interface of a computer (or other device).  They’re a useful way to move something – a bit of text, an image, etc. – from one spot to another, typically when you’re editing some item (an email message, a word processor document, etc.).

When you select some item (that bit of text, or an image, or some data in a spreadsheet, etc.) and then copy the selected item, the device “remembers” it by duplicating it into a location called a clipboard. (Typically, this clipboard is a “virtual” or “hidden” thing; the device doesn’t show you what’s in the clipboard unless you know where to look for it.) The original item that you copied doesn’t disappear; it’s left unchanged by the copy action.

When you then choose another location and tell the device to paste, the device will take what’s in the clipboard and insert it in that location. So, if you copy a bit of text from the top of page 80 of your novel-in-progress, and paste it at the bottom of page 90, that text now appears in both of those locations.

Now, here’s a variation on that: When you cut (instead of copy) an item, the item is placed in the clipboard, ready for pasting elsewhere, the same as when you copy the item. But there’s one key difference: the cut command does remove the original item. So if you cut a bit of text from page 80 in your document, that text is (invisibly) duplicated in the clipboard, and disappears from your page. When you then paste the text into page 90, that text will now appear only on page 90. (In short, by using cut and paste, you’ll have moved the text from page 80 to page 90. And in case you’re wondering: no, that’s really no different from performing copy on that text on page 80, performing paste on page 90, and then deleting the original text from page 80. Same result, different way of going about it.)

Important tip: On most devices, the clipboard can only hold one item. (Some devices may have an operating system or other installed software that offers a clipboard manager function: the ability to hold many items in the clipboard, and to offer you a choice of which one to paste. Unless you know that your device has such functionality, assume that it doesn’t.)

With a clipboard that only holds one item, the current content of the clipboard will be replaced by anything new you put in the clipboard. Until then, though, the current content of the clipboard will remain in the clipboard, ready to be pasted as many times as you like.

So if you copy an image on one page of your document and want to paste it onto ten other pages, you don’t need to copy the original image ten times and paste it ten times; just copy it once and paste it ten times. That’s all you need to do. In fact, you can then keep on pasting it – into the same document, into other documents, wherever, as many times as you like – until you then copy or cut something new. As soon as you copy or cut something new, the previous image will disappear from the clipboard, and that something new will now be in the clipboard, ready for pasting as many times as you like.

 

CPU

A CPU, or central processing unit, is a key component of a computer – what many computer engineers would describe as the “brain” of the device. See central processing unit above for a little detail.

 

cursor

Coming soon!

 

cut

All is revealed in the discussion of copy, cut, and paste!

 

D

 

directory

Directory is a more technical term for folder, those organizing structures in your computer that hold groups of files (or even other folders).

The term “directory” is an old one in computer science. When “easy” personal computers like the Macintosh came on to the scene, “directory” was renamed the less technical-sounding “folder”. They’re the same thing.

You may still hear the term “directory” from time to time. You may even hear subdirectory – that’s just a directory inside another directory (i.e., a folder inside a folder). You may also come across child directory (the directory inside another directory) or parent directory (the directory that contains the child directory).

Just for completeness, here are a couple more you might come across: home directory, the main directory that contains all the files and child directories belonging to a single user like you (as opposed to other users’ stuff, or “the computer’s” stuff); and root directory, the “top level” directory that holds all other directories on the computer.

All that said… You may never hear the term “directory” ever, and that’s just fine. But you will come across “folder” a lot. It’s a really good idea to have a basic idea of what folders are all about; click here for a short but helpful read.

 

display

This one’s easy: your device’s display it its screen, whether the built-in screen of a smartphone or laptop computer, or the TV-like screen connected to a desktop computer. (That sort of separately attached display is sometimes called a monitor.)

 

Dock

On a Macintosh computer, the Dock is useful tool for starting up applications and for switching from one application to another, among other functions. Part of the user interface in macOS, it appears as a row of icons typically placed at the bottom of the screen, although it can be placed at the right or left side instead if you prefer.

In simple terms, the Dock is a tool for “getting at” stuff you want to use. Any application that’s running appears automatically in the Dock as an icon; just click on that icon in the Dock to switch to that application. Applications that aren’t currently running can also appear as icons in the Dock; clicking such an application’s icon in the Dock will start up the application. Similarly, files and folders can be “placed into” the Dock for easy access; one click on a file’s or folder’s icon in the Dock will open the file or folder.

(That’s a really simple overview of the feature, which sports a lot of useful tricks. If you have questions about that Dock, just ask!)

macOS Dock

This row of icons is “the Dock” in macOS

 

download

Coming soon!

 

E

 

email

Coming soon!

 

emoji

Coming soon!

 

export

Coming soon!

 

F

 

FaceTime

Coming soon!

 

file

Coming soon!

 

Finder

Coming soon!

 

folder

“Folder” is a sort of conceptual structure for organizing files in a computer. (A folder is sometimes known by the more technical term “directory“; if you come across that word, it just means “folder”.)

On the screen, folders are shown with icons that look like classic manila paper folders (although not necessarily beige). The analogy is pretty simple. Countless letters, reports, and other paper files on your office desk would be an unwieldy mess. But with those papers organized into manila folders, things become workable. Find the manila folder that contains the report you need to work on, open the folder, do whatever you need to do to the report inside, then put away the folder again. Neat and clean.

In the same way, on your computer, folders are useful for grouping your personal files – your text documents, photos, scanned receipts, whatever – into manageable groups. You can open a folder, popping up a window that lets you peek at what’s inside; then do whatever you need to do to the files inside; then close the window. Neat and clean.

Folders also manage the tens of thousands of files that your computer uses to run itself (i.e., the files that make up its operating system). With these files all squirreled away in their own folders, you don’t need to worry about or even know about them.

What makes folders particularly useful is that folders can contain other folders, to organize things as meticulously as you like. For example, you can create a folder labeled “Work” and dump all your work files into it. That’s a good start at organization, but it might still be hard to find a specific file in there. So inside your Work folder, you can make more folders, like “Project A”, “Project B”, and “Expenses”, and then inside the Expenses folder, make folders for “2018”, 2017″, and so on. There. Got an expense report for March, 2017? Put it inside that 2017 folder (inside the Expenses folder, which is inside the Work folder). Now that’s organized. (Note that you can do this same thing with paper folders too, putting one folder inside another, though you’ll quickly end up with folders bursting at the seams. On your computer, though, there’s no limit to putting folders inside folders inside folders!)

To wrap this up with a little vocabulary for completeness: You may somewhere run across the term subfolder; that’d just be a folder inside another folder. You may also come across child folder (same thing: the folder inside another folder) or parent folder (the folder that contains the child folder).

Just a couple more: If you see home folder, that’s the main folder that contains all the files and child folders belonging to a single user like you (as opposed to other users’ stuff, or “the computer’s” stuff). Should you ever come across root folder, that’s the “top level” folder that holds all other folders on the computer.

And that’s probably more about folders than you wanted to know. (If it isn’t… send your questions!)

 

G

G (a.k.a. GBgbggbyte, etc.) is an abbreviation of gigabyte, a measure of “amount of information” stored in a computer or other device. Click that link for a short and simple overview!

 

GB

GB (a.k.a. gb, G, ggbyte, etc.) is an abbreviation of gigabyte, a measure of “amount of information” stored in a computer or other device. Click that link for a short and simple overview!

 

gigabyte

Gigabyte (a.k.a. GBgb, G, ggbyte, etc.) is a measure of “amount of information” stored in a computer or other device. It’s a measure of the “size” of some data, and thus how much “space” it will take up in your computer’s data storage capability, and an indicator of how long it would take to transfer from one device to another.

Specifically, a gigabyte is about 1,000 megabytes (or 1 million kilobytes, or 1 billion bytes). One or several gigabytes represents a big amount of data, such as that in a big video file, or an application that takes up a fair amount of storage. As of this date, sending files that big by email is generally possible only with special services designed to handle such heavy loads.

Depending on the speed of your Internet connection, downloading a file of a few gigabytes in size probably leaves you time to get a cup of coffee. Or maybe dinner.

A basic understanding of “amount of data” is really useful for anyone using computers, and is pretty simple stuff to boot. Spend a couple of minutes with the summary under bit above.

 

GPU

Coming soon!

 

graphics card

Coming soon!

 

H

 

hard disk

Coming soon!

 

hard drive

Coming soon!

 

hardware

Coming soon!

 

host

Coming soon!

 

hosting service

Coming soon!

 

I

 

icon

Coming soon!

 

import

Coming soon!

 

Internet

Coming soon!

 

J

 

K

K (a.k.a. KBkb, kkbyte, etc.) is an abbreviation of kilobyte, a measure of “amount of information” stored in a computer or other device. Click that link for a short and simple overview!

 

KB

KB (a.k.a. kb, K, kkbyte, etc.) is an abbreviation of kilobyte, a measure of “amount of information” stored in a computer or other device. Click that link for a short and simple overview!

keyboard

This one’s easy: a keyboard is a device used to input information to a computer. (Technically speaking, that makes it an “input method”.) Along with a mouse, trackpad, printer, CD drive, and many other devices “surrounding” a computer, a keyboard is a peripheral, or a device for getting information into or out of computers.

A keyboard presents lots and lots of keys. There’s no “standard” arrangement of keys used by all keyboards, or any “standard” keyboard at all, but typical keyboards contain alphanumeric keys with letters and numerals, as well as keys with punctuation characters, special functions (like “Enter” and “Delete”), cursor keys (for moving a screen cursor using keys instead of a mouse or trackpad), modifier keys (like the “Shift” key that harkens back to typewriters, and cryptically-named keys like “Control” and “Command”), and sometimes keys that are real head-scratchers (“Break/Pause”? “SysRq”?).

Custom keyboards are made for all sorts of languages; some languages’ keyboards may look like your keyboard with some small layout differences and a few extra keys (Å, Ü, Ç, etc.); others may be present wall-to-wall Arabic or Thai or other character sets. Keyboards can be built in to a device (as in a laptop computer), or connected separately by a cable (as in many desktop computers). A keyboard can also be separate from a computer yet connected by no cable; that’s a wireless keyboard, communicating with the computer by invisible two-way radio (probably the type of two-way radio known by the odd name Bluetooth). Finally, some keyboards may be flexible (even rollable like scroll!), or take on really oddball shapes (like a video game controller covered with keys).

As long as we’re here: The act of hitting a key is called a keystroke. Combinations of two or more keys struck at once are called keystroke combinations or keyboard shortcuts. (An example is hitting the “Command” key and the “C” key together on a Macintosh computer to copy some object. A keystroke combination is usually written in text using a “+” sign, like this: “Command + C”.)

That’s likely more than you need to know about keyboards, but send any questions that remain!

kilobyte

Kilobyte (a.k.a. KBkb, K, kkbyte, etc.) is a measure of “amount of information” stored in a computer or other device. It’s a measure of the “size” of some data, and thus how much “space” it will take up in your computer’s data storage capability, and an indicator of how long it would take to transfer from one device to another.

Specifically, a kilobyte is about 1,000 bytes (and thus only a thousands the size of a megabyte, and only a billionth the size of a gigabyte). One or several kilobytes is a pretty tiny amount of data, for most practical purposes: a simple text-only email message, or a tiny little graphic file, might consist of just a few kilobytes of data.

Say you need to download a file from the Internet, and the file is several kilobytes in size. Should that take long? Nope. Even if your Internet connection is very slow, downloading that file should happen in an instant. And you almost certainly don’t need to worry about that tiny bit of data “taking up space” on your computer.

A basic understanding of “amount of data” is really useful for anyone using computers, and is pretty simple stuff to boot. Spend a couple of minutes with the summary under bit above.

 

L

 

M

 

Mac

A common abbreviation for Macintosh, a line of desktop and laptop computers sold by Apple.

 

Macintosh

Macintosh (a.k.a. “the Macintosh”, “Mac”, and “the Mac”) is a line of personal computers sold by Apple since 1984. The many desktop and laptop models sold over the years include the names iMac, Mac Pro, Power Macintosh, eMac, Mac mini, MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, PowerBook, and more, including models just named “Macintosh” followed by some model-name letters and numbers.

Macintosh is regarded as the first computer to bring an easy-to-use graphic user interface to the mass market, a feature long since adopted by competitors, too. The main feature distinguishing Macintosh computers from other personal computers is their included Macintosh-only operating system (currently called macOS), also made by Apple.

 

macOS

The operating system (a.k.a. “OS”) that runs Apple’s Macintosh computers is called macOS (pronounced “mac oh ess”). It used to be called OS X, and before that Mac OS X; these are all names for the same thing, the operating system that runs Macintosh (or Mac) computers.

Learning a bit about the operating system that makes your computer work is a useful thing. Take a quick read of What’s an “operating system” (or “OS”)? to get better acquainted.

 

Mac OS X

Mac OS X is an older name for the operating system (a.k.a. “OS”) that runs Apple’s Macintosh computers. Also called OS X in the past, it’s now called macOS (pronounced “mac oh ess”). Whatever the name, they’re all the same thing: the operating system that runs Macintosh (or Mac) computers.

Learning a bit about the operating system that makes your computer work is a useful thing. Take a quick read of What’s an “operating system” (or “OS”)? to get better acquainted.

 

M

M (a.k.a. MBmb, mmbyte, etc.) is an abbreviation of megabyte, a measure of “amount of information” stored in a computer or other device. Click that link for a short and simple overview!

 

MB

MB (a.k.a. mb, M, mmbyte, etc.) is an abbreviation of megabyte, a measure of “amount of information” stored in a computer or other device. Click that link for a short and simple overview!

 

megabyte

Megabyte (a.k.a. MBmb, M, mmbyte, etc.) is a measure of “amount of information” stored in a computer or other device. It’s a measure of the “size” of some data, and thus how much “space” it will take up in your computer’s data storage capability, and an indicator of how long it would take to transfer from one device to another.

Specifically, a megabyte is about 1,000 kilobytes (or 1 million bytes, but a megabyte is just a thousandth of the much bigger gigabyte). Megabytes are somewhat substantial chunks of data: one or several megabytes might be the amount of data in a very long work of text, or the amount of data that makes up a single photo taken with your smartphone camera. (Several megabytes of data is also a limit on the amount of data that some stingy email services will let you attach to an email message.)

Depending on the speed of your Internet connection, downloading a file of a few megabytes in size may be nearly instant, or may leave you with a few moments to twiddle your thumbs. And unless your computer is really strapped for remaining space to store data, that file probably won’t take up any appreciable space. (However, a lot of multi-megabyte files, like most smartphone camera photos, can add up and really start taking up space!)

A basic understanding of “amount of data” is really useful for anyone using computers, and is pretty simple stuff to boot. Spend a couple of minutes with the summary under bit above.

 

memory

Coming soon!

 

menu

Coming soon!

 

menubar

Coming soon!

 

monitor

A monitor is just a display – that is, a screen – attached to a computer with some sort of cables.

(If the screen is built into the device, like the screen on a laptop computer or a phone, it’s usually called just “display” or “screen”. It’s only likely to be called “monitor” if it’s separate from the computer. I don’t know why.)

 

mouse

Coming soon!

 

move

Coming soon!

 

N

 

network

Coming soon!

 

O

 

operating system

An operating system (often abbreviated OS, pronounced “Oh Es”) is the basic software that runs a computer or computerized device.

A device’s operating system is made up of a whole bunch of programs, and lots of data, stored away on the device. It’s the whole mess of instructions that the device first reads when it starts up, and that the device continues to follow as it later runs your game applications or word processor application or what have you.

You won’t directly mess with, and don’t need to think about, most of the programs and data files that make up your operating system. All kinds of programs work behind the scenes when you connect to the Internet, or when you change the sound volume, or even when you shut down the device, but you don’t need to know their names or know much of anything at all about them. That’s a good thing.

However, as the operating system is a critical part of your computer or other device, you’ll become a lot more comfortable with devices if you have a simple understanding of what an operating system is, and what it isn’t, and what operating system is running on your device, and why you should even care. Take a few minutes to read this article: What’s an “operating system” (or “OS”)?

 

OS

OS is the abbreviation for operating system, the basic software that runs a computer or other device. It’s very helpful to know a little about this topic, so click that link and read!

 

OS X

OS X is an older name for operating system (a.k.a. “OS”) that runs Apple’s Macintosh computers. Also called Mac OS X in the past, it’s now called macOS (pronounced “mac oh ess”). Whatever the name, they’re all the same thing: the operating system that runs Macintosh (or Mac) computers.

Learning a bit about the operating system that makes your computer work is a useful thing. Take a quick read of What’s an “operating system” (or “OS”)? to get better acquainted.

 

P

 

paste

All is revealed in the discussion of copy, cut, and paste!

 

path

Coming soon!

 

PC

Coming soon!

 

peripheral

peripheral is a device – whether built into or a computer or “surrounding” it nearby – for getting information into or out of computers. Peripherals you may be familiar with are mice, trackpads, printers, CD drives, monitors (a.k.a. displays, a.k.a. screens), speakers, scanners, USB drives, and more.

 

pointer

Coming soon!

 

printer

Coming soon!

 

program

Coming soon!

 

Q

 

R

 

RAM

Coming soon!

 

S

 

screen

Your computer’s screen is its display – that is, the… well, screen that you look at.

 

select

Coming soon!

 

sidebar

Coming soon!

 

server

On a network (i.e., an arrangement of two more computers “talking” with each other), a server is a computer that receives and responds to requests for information. (The term can also refer to the actual application that runs on that computer to perform these tasks.) Where the Internet is concerned, “servers” generally refers to the unseen computers “out there” that make your Internet services work: the web server that sends you web pages upon request, the mail server that acts as “postmaster” for your email, the chat server that coordinates your instant messaging chats, and more.

By contrast, a computer (or application) that requests and receives such information – like your computer, and its web browser, email app, instant messaging app, etc. – is called a client.

Both servers and clients are discussed in this Dictionary under client. Click that link for a quick read!

 

software

The word “software” simply refers to the instructions that people write for computers. A specific piece of software is also called a program, application, or app.

Learning a bit about software – what kinds you have on your computer, what your software does, how to discuss software (such as when asking for help with questions), and so on – is really helpful. For a nice, short intro, read So, what exactly are applications, again?.

 

T

 

TB

Coming soon!

 

terabyte

Coming soon!

 

toolbar

Coming soon!

 

U

 

upload

Coming soon!

 

V

 

W

 

web

Coming soon!

 

web application

Coming soon!

 

web browser

A web browser is an app that you us to look at web pages (i.e., pages on websites). Right now, you’re using a web browser to look at this page.

There are different web browsers available, with some differences in features. Popular ones include Chrome (made by Google), Safari (made by Apple), and Firefox (made by Mozilla Foundation).

A web browser is one of the  heavily used applications on many people’s computers, smartphones, etc. It’s hard to image a modern device without a built-in web browser!

 

website

Coming soon!

 

World Wide Web

Coming soon!

 

www

Coming soon!

 

Wi-Fi

Like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi is a wireless technology – which is a fancy way of saying it’s a type of two-way radio. Wi-Fi is sort of a “medium-range” technology: it lets computers and other devices talk to each other over a distance of (typically) dozens of yards. Or in really rough terms: Bluetooth is generally a reliable way for devices to communicate with each other within the same room; Wi-Fi is generally a reliable way for devices to communicate with each other within the same house, restaurant, office floor, etc.

People who aren’t entirely sure what Wi-Fi is typically associate it with the Internet, and with good reason. One of the most common uses of Wi-Fi is to let computers connect to the Internet, without wires. In really simple terms, a basic home or office setup will work like this:

The building (home, office, etc,) has physical wires (cable TV wiring or other wiring) that connect the building to the Internet. Inside the building, this wiring ends in a modem of some sort: a little box that computers and other devices can physically connect to, using cables. By connecting to the modem, computers can physically connect to the Internet itself, and the fun begins: email, chat, web pages, kitten videos, etc…

…with one problem: cables snaking around the floor are ugly. And really inconvenient, too, for a laptop computer, tablet computer, etc. that wants to travel from room to room.

That’s where Wi-Fi comes in. One of the most popular Wi-Fi devices, a Wi-Fi router, connects physically to that modem. The Wi-Fi router then says, “Okay, computers and stuff, you can lose the cables. You don’t need to physically connect to this modem any more. I got this. You just talk to me over Wi-Fi radio, and I’ll forward everything through this modem, to and from the Internet.” And the computers and stuff are now free to sit wherever they like, relaying all their Internet communications through that hardworking Wi-Fi router, as long as they stay close enough to maintain a solid radio connection with it.

The actual reliable range between W-Fi devices will vary a lot with the specific devices in question, their placement, and the layout of the area (i.e., what sort of walls and other obstacles might block Wi-Fi’s radio waves). A big house, office floor, etc. might need several Wi-Fi routers, working together, for reliable Wi-Fi coverage over the entire area.

 

window

Coming soon!

 

Windows

Coming soon!

 

wired

Wired refers to the state of communication that takes place between devices that are physically connected (typically by a cable). A printer connected by a USB cable to your computer, or a computer connected to a router by an Ethernet cable, are all using wired connections. (If you don’t recognize a couple of terms in that sentence, that’s fine; the point is “connected by cable”.)

If, instead, the devices communicate invisibly using technologies like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth (types of two-way radio), the connection is wireless.

 

wireless

Wireless refers to the state of communication that takes place between devices “over the air” – that is, by invisible radio, not over a cable connecting the devices. When your smartphone communicates with other phones or with the Internet over its mobile connection, or your computer at home connects to the Internet over the type of radio known as Wi-Fi, or your computer sends data to your printer over the type of short-range radio known as Bluetooth, it’s all wireless (even if you don’t know or care about those specific types of radio).

And if you have devices communicating with each other over a cable? That’s a wired connection.

 

X

 

Y

 

Z

 

What else?

What other terms would you add to this page? What words have you mystified? Or what better definition do you have for any of the above? (Corrections to any mistakes of mine are very welcome.) Shout it out in the comments below!

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